This is the best sort of Pedro Almodovar film—one that dispenses with supposed profundities and simply sticks to what he does best, celebrating the sheer craft of filmmaking without trying to deliver some deep message about the human condition. “Broken Embraces” is a homage to past masters like Hitchcock and Sirk, done up in irresistible Almodovar style. And the fact that it’s really no more than that makes it all the more fun. It’s his most entertaining picture since “Bad Education.”
It also resembles that 2004 film in being intricately constructed. It begins in the present, with a blind screenwriter named Harry Caine (Lluis Homar) learning of the death of high-finance bigwig Ernesto Martel (Jose Luis Gomez). The news takes Caine back to his past, 1994 to be precise, when he was a sighted director named Mateo Blanco, whose last picture—a notorious flop titled “Girls and Suitcases”—Martel produced. Under prodding from his young assistant Diego (Tamar Novas), the son of his long-time agent Judit (Blanca Portillo), Caine/Blanco eventually reveals that the star of the film was Martel’s live-in mistress Lena (Penelope Cruz), who had been the businessman’s secretary but longed for a career as an actress, and that in the course of the production Mateo and Lena had fallen in love. But Martel had learned of their affair, partially by using behind-the-scenes footage of the shoot made by his teenaged son (Ruben Ochandiano), and taken his revenge. And now the son’s reappearance as Ray X, a guy who claims to want Caine’s help in writing a script about a boy’s hatred of his father, acts as a further incentive to dredge up what happened fifteen years before.
If this sounds complicated, that’s because it is. But Almodovar and editor Jose Salcedo keep the plot turns and time shifts clear as the narrative bops around between 1994 and 2009 and back again, and the twists pile up. Almodovar is equally adept in juggling genres, as “Embraces” shuffles from film noir to near-farce to high-toned soap opera. In the hands of less dexterous a filmmaker, so intricate a mixture, which is sort of like the cinematic equivalent of a three-dimensional chess game, would collapse into chaos, but here it has the elegance of seeming inevitability. And while it would be unfair to reveal too much about what happens, it’s certainly appropriate that the film ends with a tip of the hat to the importance of editing in cinema—a part of the process that really has a make-or-break power to it.
As with all of Almodovar’s films, the technical side of “Broken Embraces” has a dazzling quality, with an unerring use of color and perspective to achieve the desired effect and Rodrigo Prieto’s cinematography subtly changing to reflect the turns of mood and genre, as does Alberto Iglesias’ score.
The carefully-chosen cast contribute as well. Much of the attention will of course focus on Cruz, who’s very fine as the woman whose loss sends her lover into a tailspin (shades of “Vertigo,” certainly), but Homar is really the film’s linchpin, earning our sympathy while never abandoning the character’s almost preternatural calm. The supporting cast is good across the board, with Novas standing out as the young man who pushes Blanco to reveal a past in which he unknowingly played a role and Ochandiano doing double duty as Ray, painting both an amusing portrait of an obsessed young fan and a more serious one of the boy’s later self. Gomez gets in a few choice moments as a Claude Rains-like jealous paramour.
You won’t find the emotional pretensions of some of Almodovar’s other, more universally praised, films in “Broken Embraces.” But as a directorial love-letter to films and filmmaking, it’s an absolute winner.